This post is our contribution to the final CMBA blogathon of the year, a veritable feast of guilty pleasures ranging from pre-Code flicks through the fabulous excesses of the 1980s. To see the wonderful contributions from other CMBA members, check out the list on their site! The celebration starts today and continues through Tuesday.
For this post, Carrie and Brandie present a long-overdue discussion about one of their favorite minor classics.
BRANDIE: Let’s (finally) talk about our “guilty pleasure” movie, 1946’s Cinderella Jones, starring Joan Leslie, Robert Alda, and S.K. “Cuddles” Sakall. Do you remember the first time we saw this movie, Carrie?
CARRIE: Yeah … late night, flipping through channels in my apartment. I don’t remember what scene we saw first, but we kept watching out of pure incredulousness, as I recall. We were so tired, we recorded the rest to watch the next day. Many months later, when we saw the actual beginning, I think the movie was even crazier. I still love the scene with the shrunken head. At what point did we decide it was a guilty pleasure?
BRANDIE: Oh, it didn’t take us long to determine that we weren’t exactly watching Citizen Kane. By the time the soap sandwich incident came up, we knew this movie was something ludicrously special.
Cinderella Jones is such an odd little movie. There’s really no better word to describe it. It was filmed in the midst of World War II–thus accounting for the patriotic theme and the presence of a convoy of soldiers–but it wasn’t released until 1946 because the studio (Warner Bros.) wanted to distribute the film after Rhapsody in Blue (1945) in order to capitalize on Alda’s growing popularity. This forced the editors to re-cut the movie to remove most of the references to an “on-going” war. The result is a somewhat disjointed picture. And for a musical, the songs aren’t all that memorable or well-staged, which is surprising considering the movie was directed by Busby Berkeley.
I think for us, the biggest draw, at least initially, was the presence of Sakall, one of our favorite character actors. How much do we love our Cuddles??
CARRIE: WE LOVE CUDDLES!!!!!! We had to watch it for him, and he has such a wonderful character in this film. He’s the mentor that everyone wants. I loved how kind he was to Judy (and how unconcerned he was about annoying the university administrators). We should set up the plot for those who haven’t seen the movie. Judy (our “Cinderella”) is from a very eccentric family, and is about to inherit a substantial fortune. However, she has to marry someone “smart” to help her manage it. We’ll excuse the affront to feminism by owning that she probably did need help at the time (note above where Brandie references a “soap sandwich”–literally). So, she goes to university to find someone educated. Cuddles, a chemistry professor actually called “Cuddles,” helps her matriculate, and then helps set her up for romance. Needless to say, we were ecstatic that the moniker “Cuddles” was worked into the film. That probably is what cinched it for us. However, if that’s not enough for you, there is always the random military appearance and accompanying musical number at the end. As Brandie said, it’s a musical … sort of. They honestly didn’t know what they were doing with it when they made it. Perhaps that’s why it’s so charming. No one knows what to do with Judy Jones … including the filmmakers.
In the film, Cuddles is the only person who seems to have a plan for Judy (and is conniving enough to make something work out in her best interest). So, is Cuddles enough to save the film?
BRANDIE: Sakall’s performance as Professor Popik is my favorite part of the film, hands down (as a side note, I find it interesting that in this part, he embraces the name “Cuddles” for his character even though he reportedly despised being called “Cuddles” in real life). He’s adorable, he’s funny, and he sings (!!!!) and dances (!!!!!!!!!!!), albeit briefly.
I do think the casting all around is relatively strong for what is, in essence, a “B” picture. Some of the best character actors of early Hollywood appear in this film, including Edward Everett Horton, Elisha Cook, Jr., Charles Dingle, and Ruth Donnelly. And the entire thing is anchored by Joan Leslie’s admittedly adorable portrayal of Judy. It’s a hard part to play, when you think about it, having to embody someone who is an unmitigated airhead. She is a charming actress, though, and even when Judy is utterly annoying, Leslie makes her somewhat lovable. She plays well opposite Alda’s Tommy Coles, though to me they lack a certain amount of chemistry. That’s part of the problem with the film, I think: Leslie has the most chemistry with Cuddles, and he’s not exactly romance material here–he’s more of a father figure than anything else. Her other love interest, William Prince (otherwise known as Professor Williams, or “he who is at the receiving end of the soap sandwich”), is a rather dull figure, and I can’t imagine that anyone watching this film would think Judy belongs with him in the end, perceived intelligence or not. I can’t help but wonder if the film would have been somewhat stronger, romance-wise, with Dennis Morgan–the original choice to play Tommy–in the lead (that Dennis Morgan … what a dreamboat).
For me, the weakest thing about the movie is the way the story itself is presented. The idea of a ditzy dame trying to land a husband in order to inherit millions is the stuff of a screwball comedy wet dream, and yet the filmmakers really don’t do enough with the idea to highlight the sheer insanity of the plot. In trying to shoehorn the story into a musical-type format, the satirical edge of the material is ultimately lost. And it’s a shame, because while there are some moments that are giggle-worthy, Cinderella Jones never quite embraces the “madcap heiress” possibilities in the way other films such as It Happened One Night (1934) do.
Originally, the movie was to be called Judy Adjudicates (try saying that ten times fast), but that title was ditched in favor of Cinderella Jones, because let’s face it: when you’re writing a title song for a movie, “Cinderella Jones” flows much easier off the tongue. That song, by the way, is the musical highlight of the film, and Berkeley staged a charming dance number in which a number of girls willingly lose a piece of footwear and a gaggle of guys then try to match the missing shoes to their lovely owners (this performance is embedded above). Still, though a high point of this particular film, the number doesn’t hold a candle to some of the previous Berkeley-choreographed/directed musical spectacles such as 42nd Street, Footlight Parade (both in 1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, 1935, and 1937, Babes in Arms (1939), and the fabulous “I Got Rhythm” sequence from Girl Crazy (1943). The songs from the movie, which were composed by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, are serviceable, but few are truly memorable. However, one of them, “You Never Know Where You’re Going ‘Til You Get There,” found new life when it was later used in a couple of Looney Tunes shorts.
And yet, knowing the weaknesses of the musical numbers and the story itself, this is still one film that I simply must watch every time it appears on TCM (showings, however, are sadly rare). There’s just something about this movie that I really, really love, and it’s hard to articulate precisely why.
CARRIE: I still have it living on my DVR. It’s the kind of thing you watch after a really long day, with popcorn and coke or maybe ice cream. If you run across it on TCM (the only place you’re likely to find it), it’s worth a watch just to try it out. I guess you can have a “failed” film and still maintain longevity. Thank you, TCM.
BRANDIE: As I recall, this movie was the one that really prompted the idea for our blog. When you run across something that confounds, amazes, and entertains you–all at the same time–you kinda want to talk about with other people. We’ve actually been planning to write about this movie for more than a year now, and the Guilty Pleasures blogathon just presented the perfect opportunity for us to do so.
What’s your favorite scene in the movie, Carrie?
CARRIE: I knew you were going to ask me that, because I was going to ask you that. It might actually be in the beginning, where they go to have the will read and they are going to explain to Judy the terms of her inheritance, and she shows up with a head in a box. It’s the most random thing I had ever seen, and I wish I had thought of it. I think the script writers asked themselves, “What would be the oddest or most uncomfortable thing you could take to a reading of a will?” “Oh, that’s easy, a shrunken head in a box.” Of course, this is before all of our crime procedurals on primetime television would have us take that idea in a completely different direction. It was actually one of the most neatly-constructed scenes. It played like a well-done piece of improv comedy, and everyone must move and react to this strange addition to an otherwise basic scene. I loved all of the reactions and how perfectly deadpan Joan Leslie is; she is completely committed to her character’s behavior, which drives the entire structure of the scene. It makes perfect sense to Judy, so it makes perfect sense to Joan. It really is masterful in an otherwise insane picture.
So, how about you, Brandie?
BRANDIE: As ridiculous as it is, I really like the diner scene with the soap sandwich. When Judy enrolls in the all-male university, she finds that, despite Cuddles’ support, she is not really welcome. So she goes to a nearby diner and begins working as a waitress. When Professor Williams comes in (at Cuddles’ urging) to convince Judy to return to the school (in the interests of a large monetary donation when Judy finally gets her inheritance), he orders a cheese sandwich, and a flustered Judy grabs a bar of soap instead of a hunk of Cheddar cheese. Williams ends up with a mouthful of soapy bubbles and throws a temper tantrum, to which Judy responds in kind … and then she proceeds to inadvertently fix him ANOTHER soap sandwich. It’s a moment of sheer silliness, but Leslie really sells it.
Incidentally, some of our readers may not be aware that the lovely Joan Leslie is still with us at age 86. She began acting when she was still a kid–in her first movie, 1936’s Camille, she was only 11 years old! She’s not as well-known as other actresses from the time period, but Leslie ultimately starred with some of the biggest names in Hollywood: she worked with Alfred Hitchcock in a small role opposite Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent (1940); at barely 16, she played one of Humphrey Bogart’s love interests in High Sierra (1941); later that year, she was Gary Cooper’s love in Sergeant York; and she was James Cagney’s adoring wife, Mary, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). She earned her dancing chops with Fred Astaire in 1943’s The Sky’s the Limit. And she had also previously starred with Alda in Rhapsody in Blue. So Leslie definitely made her mark in some really great films. Her career really peaked in the 1940s, though she continued acting in movies and on television periodically throughout the next fifty years.
Cinderella Jones may be little more than a footnote in the careers of Leslie and Alda, but I can’t deny it’s one of my (now not-so-secret) favorites. Someone put this quirky little gem on DVD already!!!
CARRIE: This is just a great movie to end a long day, or to enjoy anytime for some silly entertainment. The film is hardly up to the skill of its actors, but that’s some of its charm. It’s possibly our guiltiest of guiltless pleasures.